I wonder… is there an equivalent to Glen Weldon’s Superman: The Unauthorized Biography that tracks the 80-year career of Flash Gordon? Only, instead of tracing society’s shifting tastes in authority figures, it instead contextualizes the spirit of athleticism over its eight-decade lifespan.
When Alex Raymond launched the comic strip in 1934, Flash was a polo player. Flash forward (heh heh) to the 1980 movie, and he’s a quarterback for the New York Jets. During the ’90s, the Flash Gordon animated series introduced the character as a skateboarding enthusiast; he’s a track-and-field star in the Syfy series … which isn’t exactly the coolest sport, but an appropriate one in a world that’s become conscious of concussions and other injuries
Dynamite Entertainment’s new Flash Gordon, written by Jeff Parker and illustrated by Evan Shaner and Jordie Bellaire, casts the title character as an extreme sports aficionado. It’s a little out of date: Flash is introduced doing a dangerous bungee jump off a bridge, reminiscent of a similar scene in the Vin Diesel movie xXx (the most extreme spy, dude, way cooler than that lame-o James Bond). Still, it does establish something crucial about Flash: The world is far too tame for his wild, adventurous spirit. Flash gets a slap in the face and a stern, parental warning to stop with his childish garbage (one imagines the frequently bare-chested Alex Raymond Flash would have instead been applauded). Is there a place for him somewhere that isn’t totally lame?
It turns out there is … on the Planet Mongo. After some cursory character introductions, Flash Gordon #1 sidesteps the familiar origin story by rocketing straight ahead to an in medias res adventure on faraway planets. (There are some hints, though: As the space shuttle is being towed behind her, reporter Dale Arden comments to a NASA representative that they should lobby for funding to fight meteor strikes.) Flash, Dale and Dr. Zarkov are outrunning alien monsters, fighter planes and minions of Ming the Merciless … and the grin on Flash’s face couldn’t be any wider. Outer-space adventure is what Flash lives for, and his face falls only when his companions opt for safer, less-risky options.
Part of the joy of reading a new Flash Gordon is seeing how it changes with the times. I find it endlessly fascinating, for example, how the futuristic and scantily clad aesthetic of the original comic strips worked so perfectly when replicated faithfully in the post-disco world of the 1980 movie. This Flash Gordon is more geared toward the children. Like, you won’t feel guilty showing this to a 7-year-old, something you might not be too comfortable doing with the original strips. The art is sunnier, and the soap opera melodrama seems to be kept on the down-low thus far.
After all, times change, and some of the attitudes of the original strips can be interpreted as appalling today. Take Ming the Merciless, for example: Now, while not as offensive as the dog-eared, Asian-looking aliens in contemporary strip Buck Rogers, Ming is seen by some as an unfortunate portrayal of the “yellow peril.” I never felt that way; I thought Ming was one of the suavest and most memorable-looking villains to step of the funny pages. Syfy probably went the furthest at eliminating his distinct appearance by recasting Ming as a clean-shaved blond Caucasian dude wearing a suit. As someone of Asian descent, that isn’t the sort of move I approve of at all — in fact, I liken it to the same disappointment I feel when, say, Hollywood casts a non-Asian kid as Goku.
So imagine my joy when Ming shows up in this comic, and he looks very much like Max Von Sydow from the movie. He’s rocking the Fu Manchu, he’s got high cheekbones and arched eyebrows, and he’s wearing the cowl with a sun stamped on it. I may have wept tears of happiness. Seriously, comic artists, there are a lot of things to change about Flash Gordon to bring it up to modern times … but never change Ming. He’s a classic.